Sunday, November 22, 2015

Post Paris Massacre

I can’t scrub the sadness out of my heart.  
No matter where I turn, there is talk of violence and hate.
Where can I place my pain, so that it is healed by a tender touch?  
Who will listen to the disquiet within me and reassure me with love?.
Who will take my tears and turn them into a potent prayer?

I can’t scrub the sadness out of my heart.
No matter what I do, the melancholy attaches to my muscles.
Where can I place my beliefs, so that it draws me to action?
Who will solve the problem of evil, while my body emotes fear?
Who will offer up a psalm and turn my mourning into hope?

I can’t scrub the sadness out of my heart.
So I will leave it there
And watch it grow with sorrow and compassion.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

My Savta, My Rabbi

My granddaughter, Noa Rebecca, celebrated her Bat Mitzvah last weekend with a tribute to curiosity. She read from B’reisheet, the first chapter of the first book of Genesis. Noa was poised and confident, full of joy as always. Her sincerity, so touching in a twelve-year-old, was manifest in the set of her shoulders, adorned with a prayer shawl that had been made for my oldest daughter, Naama, for her own Bat Mitzvah thirty years ago. On the collar of the tallit, a Hebrew inscription from Proverbs: “Wisdom begins with awe.”

After reading from the Torah, she delivered a teaching she had prepared, which included these words:

One the one hand, Eve’s curiosity shows her eagerness to be knowledgeable and learn about the world. On the other hand, Eve’s curiosity would mean that she would disobey God’s commandment. Adam and Eve’s curiosity to taste the apple and taste the knowledge was so strong that it even overcame their will to obey God...I understand her curiosity and her hunger for that apple full of knowledge. I learned that the Torah, such an ancient text, really does have relevance for me in this modern age.

Afterward, she took a breath and read her “thank-you part.”

This special day would not have been successful without the help of so many people. First, I would like to especially thank my Savta for being my Rabbi...

My Savta. My Rabbi.

As we stood side by side on the dais at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the nation’s capital, my dual roles became interwoven into a one-of-a-kind tapestry: it was the first time that I was officiating as a woman rabbi at the bat mitzvah of my own granddaughter. My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, one of my uncles, and my father-in-law, all of blessed memory, had carried the title of rabbi, but the ordination of female rabbis did not even begin until the year I had my first child. It hadn’t occurred to me, as a young woman, that I could carry on that legacy. Now, we stood at the intersection between history and family.

The very first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Berlin in 1935 under the authority of her mentor, Rabbi Max Weyl, after attending the Judische Theologisches Seminar in Breslau. She wrote her thesis there on the subject, “May a Woman Hold Rabbinic Office?” and this is the first known attempt to find a legal basis for women’s ordination in Jewish law. She was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942 and performed rabbinical functions there until 1944. She died in Auschwitz that same year with no successor. Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in 1972 and Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974. These women were still outliers in the movement toward ordaining women rabbis.

Within the Conservative movement, the demands for women’s equality were presented by the Ezrat Nashim group in 1972. That same year, Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of the eminent Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, asked the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City to consider her application to its rabbinical school. She was denied entrance. Had she been the son of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, she would have been given the accolades due to someone of her lineage. Today she is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth and lectures at the Jewish Theological Seminary. But it was 1983 before the JTS faculty voted to open the doors of its rabbinical school to women. Nineteen women entered the first rabbinic class, and in May,1985, Amy Eilberg was ordained the first female rabbi by the Conservative seminary.

In the space of three decades, women rabbis have transformed the religious landscape of modern Jewish America. We have created new rituals for the moments unique to a woman’s life cycle and shaped feminist theology and textual interpretation.  We have pioneered careers in chaplaincy and healing, justice and peacemaking.  We have taught Torah, comforted the bereaved, studied with Jews-by-choice and designed our own spiritual communities, large and small, throughout the United States. As of this year, over fifty percent of the classes in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist seminaries are female. Yeshivat Maharat, the first orthodox yeshiva established in 2009, has so far ordained five women with the title “maharat”, a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit, or female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.

Today, there are close to 1000 female rabbis in America.  I am one of them.

My faith in God has always been strong and positive, but my Jewish education was minimal.  I was not required to dig deep into the mysteries of the Torah. But once I understood that I could shed the strictures of my orthodox upbringing--once it became clear to me that I wanted to be the one to carry on my family’s rabbinic lineage--I jumped into the river where the ancient knowledge flowed.  I was fearless and ferocious.

I was ordained at the age of forty-eight by the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City, a seminary that trains rabbis and cantors with a pluralistic focus for contemporary Jewish communities. They welcomed me as a second career student.  I graduated in 1995 with five women and one man. We were all over forty-five.

That was twenty years ago. Grandchildren were not even a twinkle in my eye. But now, many of my classmates are grandparents.  We are elders, but not in the rabbinate. At least the women are not. In the future, there will be many granddaughters who will be calling their Savtas their Rabbis. But the Savta-Rabbis of the present time are still few.  

This past year I have seen a surfeit of joy: One year ago, my oldest granddaughter, Ilana, celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia. Eight months ago, my oldest grandson, Adin, became a Bar Mitzvah at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC.  And on Columbus Day weekend, my second oldest granddaughter, Noa, had her bat mitzvah in the same sacred space.

My Savta. My Rabbi.

My granddaughters and your granddaughters have access to the present day Tree of Knowledge in their own home-grown Gardens of Eden. I am proud to be a witness and a teacher in this time of transformation, and I can see the unbroken chain of my granddaughters’ knowledge stretching far into the future.

Every once in a miraculous while, we, like Moses, are given a sneak peak into our own Promised Land. When I looked sideways from my podium to Noa’s podium, I saw that the seeds of my labor had blossomed into a beautiful flower whose fragrance reached the heavens.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Morning Time Ritual

Every morning, my mother would awaken me.  “Gut Morgen,” she would whisper. Her body leaned over mine and I felt her wet kiss linger on my forehead. “Time for school.”

As I tumbled out of bed, I would stumble upon my father. Standing next to the open window in the corner of the living room, my rabbi -father swayed to the rhythm of his premeditated prayer dance, draped in his white and black-striped worship-gear. Often, my father enveloped me under  his prayer shawl wings,and we moved through the morning ritual together.

Now when I wrap myself in my white cotton prayer shawl scattered with blue, magenta and purple embroidery,  I long for the security that my father’s well-worn wool tallit offered me at morning time. Through decades of time and distance our spiritual practice is surprisingly similar. We still embrace each other albeit virtually.  

Before I open my eyes in the morning, I recite the Hebrew prayer of gratitude:
Modah Ani. Thank you Holy One for returning my soul to my body and renewing
the life force within me.

Then, I open my eyes and take notice of my surroundings. The fleshy tones of the
bedroom paint connect me physically to my body. The light from my bay window calls my spirit into being. I enunciate my good fortunes thought by thought.  Modah Ani. Somewhere behind my morning ritual is the promise of a sweet kiss on my forehead.and a warm embrace.

It's Not Over Until It's Over: The Laundry

My father was in charge of the laundry. As a young girl, I delighted in accompanying him to accomplish this Sunday morning ritual.  I would press the mysterious “B” button as we descended into the basement of our eight- story apartment building in the Bronx. Before we entered the elevator, however, we collected all our quarters needed to operate the washer and dryer machines. We managed to complete the several loads of undershirts and  underwear, the towels and turtlenecks of our daily life, with the quarters we had been hoarding in sundry containers throughout the house..

In between loads, we  would visit the nearby neighborhood park where my father puffed joyfully on his cigar away from my mother’s watchful eyes and consternation. It was our secret and I faithfully kept it. Unless,of course, my mother stared into my eyes and asked me directly.  “Was your father smoking outside? Tell me the truth.”

Smoking or not, my father mingled with neighbors and strangers alike. He was gregarious
and garrulous. I enjoyed his chatter with the people who presumed not to know me.  “You must be Benny’s little girl.” But,of course, I grimaced. Who else would I be?  Did they not notice how firmly I held onto my father’s hand?

Back and forth we went from the park to the basement and back up again until
the folded laundry was placed into our shopping cart and brought upstairs for my mother’s
scrutiny.  She always separated the laundry into two piles. One belonged to me and my sister; the other to my mother and father. The laundry ritual continued this way just beyond my college years when marriage found me, and I moved with my husband to Syracuse, New York.

Suddenly and irretrievably, I became the CEO in charge of all family laundry distributions. Four children later, the laundry ritual was now a daily occurrence. Alone without my father's cheerful inflections, the laundry piled up in every corner of our two story Dutch Colonial house in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Occasionally, my parents came to visit and my dad, once again, joyfully, participated with me in the sorting and folding of each piece of worn and torn t-shirts of every shape and size.  

As each adult child entered college and left the proverbial nest, they lessened my load.
The laundry load. I was naively mistaken.

College was at the University of Chapel Hill for the two eldest daughters.  UNC was a
mere hour away from our home and yes, they would often come home on weekends
to refuel. I mean reload. Before a hug, a kiss or a smile, their bright- colored  laundry
sacks calligraphed with their embroidered names, were dumped unceremoniously just outside our laundry room  So while my two college students refueled, I mindlessly loaded and reloaded the washer/dryer.  By Sunday evening, the girls’ washed clothes were ready to go when they were.

“Thanks, mom.” They giggled as they placed their fragrant totes into the Honda.
I smiled knowing what they knew.  Mom is always in charge of the laundry no matter
where you roam.

Currently, my four adult children reside in four different homes in two different states with their
children and their own assortment of laundry baskets.  Laundry radar follows me from home to home, mound upon mound.

“Thanks, mom.”  

Nothing says “I love you” more than stacks of neatly- sorted clothing resting royally on the beds of my beloveds. The laundry?  It is not over until it is over, which means, it is never really  over. Really.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

His Death Was Certain

I stand in the shade, lean into the base of a yellow birch tree trunk and tune in to a story about the fate of one Jewish man during the holocaust.The sparrows chirp in the background,and I strain to comprehend the archivist’s narrative through the low volume on my phone.

Several days before, I was asked to translate a letter from Yiddish to English written by the man’s widow. I am stymied by the handwriting, but fully intrigued by the possibility of finding a clue that will ultimately lead to the puzzling discordant ending to this family's search.

Did he die at the camps? Or was he betrayed and shot to death by his rescuers?

Either way, he has died without burial, without eulogy, without closure. Seventy years later his family continues to discern what happened to their beloved husband, father, grandfather.

His death is certain. How he died is not. The murdered victim’s epilogue is missing but through what final action?

Holding the document in my hand, I become part of the string of events that might reveal some surety about the chain of events that lead to one man’s terrible demise. It had to be terrible. It was 1944.

My curiosity has now become my burden, and my burden has become my sacred task. His denouement has become personal. Our destinies have collided beyond death.

As I linger on each cursive letter, his life and death begin to matter to me. How can this be? Last week, he was one of the six million. This week, he is one of my ancestors who traveled through my Yiddish- speaking childhood reminding me of other conversations and other incongruities about my family’s past.We call them, the lost ones. Now,I am lost in discovery and in doubt, floating in mystery amid words and paragraphs, sentences without periods, and signs without sounds. Like a Chagall painting, I am in dream mode that slowly regresses into a nightmare.

I place the manuscript in a folder labeled: to be translated. Tomorrow I will struggle to find a message of comfort in this two page document. I am not certain that I will.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Life is Beautiful But...

“Life is beautiful but not always kind,” said the 95 year old matriarch. “ You will need resilience and courage.” This blessing for five-month-old Naomi Adele followed the ritual of calling out her Hebrew names for the first time in community.
Light-haired and blue-eyed Naomi Adele was showered with words like peace, love, health and happiness by other family members. The familiar formula. But Sophie’s words, in contrast, added a truth that we all know but rarely express.  
We beam at the loving wedding couple; we gaze at the precious infant child; we applaud the  proud college graduate when she receives her diploma.  We breathe in the joy these moments contain, and we silently pray for a bountiful tomorrow. The future, however, winks back at us sarcastically.  Maybe they will have a storybook ending and maybe they won’t. But in this celebratory frame of mind, we prefer to believe in fairytale endings.
Life is beautiful but not always kind.
“I have had many setbacks and upsets,” Sophie admitted. “ I just keep on going. I have had a full life. I am not finished yet.”
Her elegance attracted me. Her outspoken demeanor inspired me. Her truth bothered me.
“You are a beautiful and kind lady,” I said. I added no “buts” to my compliment.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015


All too often life takes an unpredictable turn.

We find ourselves on a dead end street.

Or so we think.

We step outside the car and re-examine our options.

We walk around a fence.
An open field stares back at us, iridescent and vast.

Our dreams wait beyond those pastures.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Art and Maintenance of a Thirteen-Year-Old Mensch

For 13 years, I have watched my eldest grandson take on the characteristics of the proverbial mensch. Minutes after he was born, I witnessed a boy in the making. With his flagrant red hair, his calculated screams, and his sense of timing, Mr. Adin made an impression. Immediately after his covenantal circumcision, he began his preparation towards the real thing: his bar mitzvah.

Menschology is the art of making a child into a mensch. It is a gender-neutral word that encourages the creative strategies of parents and rabbis to fine tune the intricate details of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah in today’s contemporary society.

A mensch: A person of integrity and honor.

"Perhaps a public dialogue on the bimah about your parshah would be the way to go," I suggested to my daughter and grandson as we began exploring the essence of his bar mitzvah service at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

"Like what kind of questions?" asked Adin.

"Questions about your Torah portion. What are the Biblical and relevant themes? A few fun facts perhaps? Teaching moments," I concluded.

The morning of the bar mitzvah, I introduced the question/answer format to the congregation of friends and family. We did our back and forth routine with humor and affection.

After months of study and daily practice, my grandson learned some very important Judaic skills. Even before uncovering the sacred melodies of the scripted Torah, he had developed a built-in Jewish consciousness and a Talmudic mind characterized by his genuine curiosity.

So what was the task to be accomplished for his bar mitzvah?

The job of the bar mitzvah is to teach the young man how to swim in the world of knowledge, and how to navigate the nature of menschology. Both require a deliberate process with a talented guide/mentor. Both build on a strong foundation from the teacher/parent. Both are continuous and contiguous to each other. The bar mitzvah boy has to give himself over to the mystery that lies behind the Hebrew characters and learn to respect its history, legacy and sanctity. As a mensch in the making, the Bar Mitzvah boy has to search for his ethical and moral compass on a daily basis.

Have you ever watched the bar/bat mitzvah child during his special weekend? ow does he conduct himself around friends and family? What is his demeanor? Does he exude gratitude or haughtiness? Is he respectful to his family or is he spiteful? Has he begun the long road towards a person of character or a person of attitude?

As I watched my grandson stand up and be counted as an educated addition to the Jewish people, I was even more proud that after 13 years of character building and problem solving, his registration card reads, "Mensch." Now that the party is over, the guests have left, the daily practice routine has abruptly ended, we can focus on the art and maintenance of this thirteen-year-old mensch, Adin Isaac Yager. Mazal Tov!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Stuck at the Seder Table

I wish you all a meaningful and sacred Seder experience where time and space take you forward and backward. Do extend your prayers towards the possibility of freedom beyond our borders to all who need the miracles of the Exodus today. Chag Sameach V’Kasher.

Our annual seders were staged in the Bronx apartment where my maternal grandparents lived with my aunt, uncle and my two cousins. The living room was transformed into a festive dining hall where chairs and tables occupied the entire space. Once everyone was seated, it was difficult, if not impossible to move. Stuck at the Seder, we performed our rituals, sang our songs, recited the prayers and waited for our dinner. Sarah, our family housekeeper, prepared the plates from the overstocked kitchen and then passed them to the aunts, who passed them to the person at the end of the table who passed them down the table to the elders. The children were served last on smaller plates. During the passing of the plates. I stayed in my less than comfortable chair, taking in the heavenly smell of  my mother’s fluffy matzo balls. Besides the food and the atmosphere of thanksgiving, I felt lucky to be squeezed between my cousins at this crowded but cozy Passover Seder.

My immigrant Polish family had survived the pogroms, the holocaust, poverty and humiliation. Behind each song was a story. I would not tease out their solemn stories until I was in my twenties when the seders of my youth became the seders of my past.

My grandparents passed away. My cousins married and moved away. One by one we evacuated the Bronx apartment building on Prospect Avenue and moved to our own separate neighborhoods. My uncle moved to New Jersey, my aunt to Riverdale, my other aunt to Co-op City and my parents to the Grand Concourse. Our congenial family dispersed itself throughout the Bronx. For decades, I would try to piece together this geographic jigsaw puzzle, albeit unsuccessfully.

Tonight, I will celebrate Passover at the home of my eldest daughter in Virginia. Three of my four children will accompany my seven grandchildren, three son-in-laws, my ex-husband, his brother and sister-in-law from Israel, plus two young friends. We are still dispersed geographically, but we deliberately come together to replicate and celebrate the Seders of our past. The seating will be more luxurious. The dining room with its long table and chairs will extend into the hallway and two more tables will be added. I will be the one serving instead of waiting to be served. We will sing the songs, perform the rituals and recite the prayers while we all anticipate the holy matzo balls, fluffy or hard. I will be content to be stuck at the Seder table with those I love.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Accounting

I recently changed banks. When I saw the official stamp, Account Closed, I had an existential thought: Which one of my internal accounts has been liquidated? Have I just been freed of some debt that I incurred in another lifetime? Maybe this life is about to change for the better. But how would such a recalculation manifest itself?

I am in love with my new bank. They call me by name when I walk in. They say, “Good morning!” and smile. “What can I do for you today?” they ask. I like this new attention that is directed toward me. But I am beginning to think my neighborly affection is pointing toward a bigger truth: If the bank teller’s greeting makes me feel prosperous, it is because I enjoy being seen.

In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve attempt to eclipse themselves from God’s view after having disobeyed the instruction not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. When God asks, "Where are you?" Adam responds, “I was afraid … and I hid myself.” From the beginning, knowledge came with self-doubt: As soon as Adam was aware of his humanness, he saw himself as flawed.

We all hide from others because we are ashamed, or we don’t feel competent, or others make us feel invisible. We hide for fear that we will be rejected, yet we crave to be seen by others through an unconditional lens, with reverence. Every acknowledgement brings us out of the shadows of our own vulnerability and into the light. This feeling is not tied to anything we own or any wealth we amass.

My recalculation, then, goes something like this: I, too, need recognition from others to remind me of my worth. But I am also learning, little by little, to see myself as a person of value. And of this I am certain: It has nothing to do with my bottom line, and everything to do with the richness of my spirit.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The TzimTzum of Relationships

In the act of creation, God contracted him/herself to make something very finite out of the infinite. God, referred to as the Ein Sof, is "The Infinite,";the Boundless One, the Being that has no end. TzimTzum is a term used in Lurianic Kabbalah that describes this constriction.

So when God decided to create the Universe, God emptied him/herself by withdrawing the Infinite Light into a single spectacular light and created a world that was outside of him/herself.

This was an act of love.

When you love someone, and you want to give them the "space" that they desire to flourish, the discipline of contracting yourself allows the other person’s needs to become a priority. You shrink yourself so that something greater can grow. Neither disappears. The concealment is only temporary while each person finds their own purpose and brings their gifts back to the team. The void is filled with renewed joy and fulfillment from a deeper dimension.

As the mother of four grown children, I practice contraction daily. When my adult daughter calls me to ask advice about a particular dilemma of the moment, my first response is to enlarge her query. By asking questions rather than giving answers, I place her concern in the center of my beingness; my capabilities to discern her reality becomes limitless if not, like the Ein Sof, infinite.

Friday, February 27, 2015

My Mother's Shabbat Candles

In memory of my parents, Rabbi Benjamin Miller and Jeanette Miller, whose yahrzeits occurred this past February 15 and February 22, respectively.

While going through the contents of my piano bench one evening, I discovered the sheet music to a piece I used to play constantly when I was in high school.

Among the smiles
Among the tears of my childhood’s sweet and bitter years
There’s a picture that my memory fondly frames
And in it softly shine two tiny flames
My mother’s Sabbath candles . . . 
(Jack Yellen,1950) 

I placed this decades-old song above the keyboard and began to play. My fingers traversed the black and white keys easily. I recalled the living room scene where my mother would sit on the flowery upholstered couch across from the piano and listen while I practiced. Often, she was tearful; mostly, she was just speechless.

I witnessed my mother lighting and praying over the Sabbath candles every Friday night for the 22 years that I lived at home. She succeeded in fulfilling the commandment to light the Sabbath candles almost 5,000 times during her 95 years; I believe she never once missed this reverent act. When I got married and left the warmth of those Friday evenings, I took the ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles into my home, and it became one of our cherished family traditions.

My aging parents moved to Philadelphia from the Bronx to be near my oldest sister, Khana, when they needed extra care. For the next eight years, they lived in a large one-bedroom apartment that included a small, square kitchen that could only accommodate their dishes and appliances. There was no breakfast area and no real table, so a shelf was built specifically to hold my mother’s two Sabbath candlesticks.

My father’s yahrtzeit, the one-year anniversary of his death, occurred the Sunday before my mother died. She had struggled to live without him throughout the year. Now, another year was beginning. How many more Sabbaths would she need to observe without him? The week before, I had stood next to her in that kitchen, and the two of us had lit the Sabbath candles together. My childhood memories melted into the candle wax. My mother leaned on me as she waved her hands in front of the candles to usher in the light of the Divine. With her eyes closed, she continued the tradition of her foremothers, mumbling the customary Hebrew blessing while her heart cried out with silent grief.

My mother died the following Sabbath in the early morning hours before dawn. I was not with her when she lit her candles for the last time. But my father’s spirit stayed to bless and temper her Sabbath sorrow. He resided in the tears that fell onto my mother’s apron and sanctified the windowless space. I can picture my parents leaning on one another and waving their hands toward the light. Perhaps the glow of the flame was my father’s soul longing to be at home again with her. Perhaps it was my mother’s longing to be at home in his soul.

Maybe both.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Shabbat with my Grandchildren

They sat on my couch lined up like a row of boats in the harbor: boy, girl, boy, girl; six, eight, eleven and twelve respectively.

With the Shabbat candles lit, we sang the welcoming Sabbath hymn, I gave them each a hard cover siddur (prayer book), and together we created our home-centered Friday evening service.

“What prayer would you like to sing now?” I asked.

My four grandchildren have been singing and studying the Jewish liturgy since birth. Their parents celebrate Shabbat with them every Friday night, and the tunes and the words have been etched in their hearts and minds for years. How did I get so lucky to be witness to the next generation of Jewish youth?

As I listened to my grandchildren recite the prayers of our age-old religion, I realized that passing down the traditions of our ancestors is accomplished with one teaching moment at a time.

It may begin with a Jewish lullaby or the taste of a braided challah. The glow of the Sabbath candles or the recognition of a Hebrew letter. These are the sights, the smells, the sounds of our Jewish heritage.

I can see beyond this Shabbat and perceive a Jewish future where my four grandchildren are leading the way.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Portraits of My Father

I could look up the year of my father’s death, but what does it matter? On a cold February day, five or six or eight years ago, he passed away. What matters is how the grief has changed me. After all these years without his physical presence, our relationship continues.

Is it normal to bring into focus his funny face every time I think of him? What did we both look like when we were younger? What does it matter? Now, all that I can imagine is an ageless father who stopped growing old and never was young enough to be my "daddy."

Sometimes, I see him pulling out a Cuban cigar from his pocket, and, in slow motion, lighting up on a corner street in the Bronx. Sometimes, when I walk into a Dunkin Donuts store, I continue ordering him his favorite, the original donut and a large black coffee, no cream, no sugar, but hot enough so he could feel the warmth on his dentures. And sometimes, I picture him standing in the living room, with tallit and tefillin wrapped around his arm and forehead.

Morning after morning, he appeared as my first vision. He appears again as I conjure up his funny face.

Whether my father was eating, smoking, praying or laughing at his own jokes, he was and always will be moving portraits of love, compassion, wisdom and joy.

Friday, February 6, 2015

PhD-Level Compassion

David introduced himself before the lecture began. A high school junior from Winston-Salem, N.C., he was spending a semester at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. We were seated in the second row of the Helena Rubinstein auditorium inside the United States Holocaust Museum, where Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, would attempt to answer the question: "Can Atrocities be Prevented?"

Mr. Al Hussein, the former Permanent Representative to the United Nations from Jordan, is a Muslim. His portfolio includes peace building and accountability for human rights violations. He crafted his talk with published research, quotations from Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl, and court records from the perpetrators of the holocaust atrocities. Every day he concerns himself with suffering on the ground. His distinguished, calm demeanor relaxed us even though the subject was dark and dismal.

I am increasingly supportive of the proposition that education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights componentcan be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel. . . . We need people who are kind. People with PhD-level compassionPeople who feel joy, and generosity, and love, and who have fully integrated the values that are essential to life in freedom and dignity. We need people with a strong moral compass, and we need to help to build – or rebuild – that compass with education that includes a deeper moral content.

We applauded his simple truth but reacted with public cynicism and frustration.

I asked my high school friend what he had learned from the High Commissioner.

"I have to tell you that I go to a Catholic parochial school, and although I get a good education, the emphasis is mostly on getting good grades. I have learned more about ethics and morality in the two weeks that I have been here at this program than I have in the two years that I have been in high school. The Commissioner is right. We need to teach about basic moral values, human rights and ethics in schools everywhere, not just at the School of Ethics and Global Leadership."
David from Winston-Salem, N.C., is on his way to earning his PhD in compassion. He gave me hope in the midst of communal despair.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Desire for Acceptance

"May the words of my mouth be acceptable to You."
- Hebrew prayer recited before
we begin the central standing prayer, known as the Amidah

We ask God to accept our prayers even before we say them. We ask people to accept us even before we meet them.

In our daily lives, we seek to be seen and heard. We want to matter. Like a child who reaches her hands upward signaling that she wants to be held, we, as adults, long for that attentive act of unconditional love. The fear of rejection begins as a child and carries a lifelong sentence of perfection performance.

I am the second child of my parents' offspring. I am constantly struggling for my premiere place in the world, even as I accept my birth order in my nuclear family. I want to claim my gold position in everything else, and so I work harder to achieve and to get noticed for these same successes. I was the first female in my family to get a higher degree and the top student in my classes from public school to rabbinical school. I was the first cousin who traveled to Israel on scholarship as a college student, and getting to be Queen Esther in the Yiddish fifth grade school play made all my other cousins jealous.

In Judaism, the "bechor," the first born (usually the male heir), has numerous privileges and responsibilities. God’s favor rested on their first fruits, their first offerings.

And yet, as in the biblical Cain and Abel, we learn that to be first was not always a good thing. The rejection of Cain’s offering to God began the saga of sibling rivalry and culminated in the first post-creation murder. The early Genesis stories confound us further by giving the second born lineage over the first-born: Abel over Cain; Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau.

To be accepted is to be acknowledged for our uniqueness no matter our birth order or status in life. When God accepts our prayer offerings, the Holy One relies on the authenticity of our heart’s desires -- not on the embellishments that surrounds them.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Grand Paris Synagogue

The Grand Synagogue of Paris sits inside the 9th arrondissement on 44 Rue de la Victoire on a narrow cobbled street. This 1874 architectural jewel overtakes the street cowering like a Lion of Judah protecting its cubs.

On a rainy summer day last July, my friend and I ventured from our apartment in Le Marais (the Jewish district) to attend the morning Sabbath services at this oldest and most prodigious Jewish house of worship in France. We handed over our American passports to the guard and emptied our backpacks to reimagine these glorious generations in French Jewish history.

What were the Jews thinking when they built this "cathedral" to their God 141 years ago

Prosperity. Economic security. Demographic growth. Cultural Continuity. Eternal light.

The luminosity inside this 1800 seat, womb-like structure startled my sensibilities.

Dozens of menorahs with nine plastic covered bulbs each circled this cavernous chapel. Chandeliers hung from every corner. Light fixtures on the walls illuminated my way to the women’s section in the downstairs main section. Facing sideways towards the bimah, I could see the men processing their morning choreography in fastidious detail.

The traditional Hebrew prayers sung and chanted by eight educated male songbirds reverberated off the walls and the ceilings without any electronic enhancements.

I was reminded of my own Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx where I grew up in the 1950s. Although much smaller in size and scale, I recalled how the male voices blended into my perfect prayerful past and, now again, into this perfect prayerful present.

I called upon this memory while watching Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Hollande seated side by side inside the Grand Synagogue during a memorial service for the four Jewish victims of a terrorist attack inside a Paris Kosher market the weekend of January 9. I prayed for the harmonies to be grand. I prayed for the healing to be majestic. I prayed for the Lions of Judah to stand up again for her cubs.

Disabled Prayers

I watched my fourteen-month-old granddaughter watching me as she embedded herself on an adult hospital mattress in the pediatric intensive care unit at Fairfax Children’s Hospital in Virginia. A prolonged respiratory virus causing high fevers,consistent coughing, and rapid breathing convinced her parents that it was time to take her to the emergency room.  Four days and three nights of constant medical intrusions and interventions escalated into one traumatic episode for my daughter, her husband, and our extended family. Several times, I was alone with Shoshana Naomi when my daughter took a well-deserved break.  I stared into her dark cimmerian eyes and leaned forward so she could see and, perhaps, feel my deep empathy for her well-being.  I hunched over her adorableness and became absorbed in a moment-to-moment healing ritual of being. I did not speak the words of my familiar prayers. They remained irretrievable and silent.My essentiality and ego faded into the background.  In the foreground was this disconsolate child, my soul’s present priority. Focused and fixated, I recorded every minute movement from her struggling body. Was sheasleep? Was she nursing comfortably? Was her breathing optimal? Was her cough waning?  How might we reduce her tiny tremblings?  I sat and swayed her in a chair that did not rock.  She was my safety and I was her anchor.  We slipped into the harbor together, heading toward the lighthouse of recovery.  But where were the prayers? Where were the Hebrew prayers of my childhood that I know by heart? Disconnected. Disarmed. Disabled. Lost in fear. I remember visiting my late father following his hip surgery ten years ago. Frail and pale, his body sank sullenly into the hospital bed. In an attempt to raise his spirits, I offered him a siddur, a yarmulke, and his well-worn tallit. My devout father, who prayed every morning and evening, refused his personal paraphernalia. “I cannot pray today. I am too weak. Today, God will need to pray for me.” For four days and three nights, not one prayer passed through my mind or mouth. I simply was not able. I was too busy watching my granddaughter watching me.
Could I boldly ask God to pray for my granddaughter? Perhaps you, Papa, with your ever-persuasive prayers, could engage with God for Shoshana’s healing, and also bring my prayers back to life.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Practice Loving Someone

We are given opportunities every day to practice loving someone.

Even when they don’t deserve it.

Especially when they don’t deserve it.

Can you transform yourself into a person who loves anyway, anytime, all the time?

Are you not the person who claims to be kind, giving, honest and noble?

When you are able to experience yourself as kind, giving, honest and noble, you will find that you will experience the very thing you wanted all along: to be loved by someone who is practicing loving you.